Matta Hopes Freshmen Can Contribute

Ohio State boasts four returning starters from a team that reached the Sweet 16 last season, but a new of new faces dot the roster this year. With the first exhibition game four days away, take a look at five freshmen not named Jared Sullinger and where they could fit into the puzzle this season.

By now, even the casual basketball fan has likely heard of Ohio State freshman Jared Sullinger. The former five-star recruit has been hailed as one of the best players in his class and one with enough upside to be named an All-American.

But for the Buckeyes to keep pace atop the Big Ten and advance deeper than the Sweet 16 in the NCAA Tournament, they will need to assimilate five more freshmen into a lineup that includes four returning starters. Aaron Craft, DeShaun Thomas, Jordan Sibert, Lenzelle Smith and J.D. Weatherspoon will all have to assume roles for head coach Thad Matta's squad.

At the top of that list would appear to be Craft, a 6-2, 195-pound point guard who could open the season in the starting lineup. At Big Ten media day Oct. 28, Matta said he has been impressed with Craft's intelligence both on and off the court.

The coach said he and the coaches asked Craft on Oct. 26 about a chemistry exam he had just completed.

"He said, ‘Coach, I think I may have got them all right, but I'll find out tonight because the professor let us take the test home,' " Matta said. "And he said, ‘I'm going to look it up online.' He texted me about 11:00 that night and said, ‘Coach, I wasn't lying, I got them all right.'

"That's how he plays basketball. He's got a tremendous understanding. He's got a toughness about him. He as a freshman appears to have a great feel for where the ball needs to be when it needs to be there. And he shot the ball a lot better than we had seen him coming in out of high school."

Senior forward David Lighty said Craft has a knack for seeing things before they happen on the court. He led his Findlay (Ohio) Liberty-Benton team in scoring his last three years of high school and averaged 26 points, seven assists and eight rebounds as a senior with 70 steals (3.2 per game).

The ability to hit the open jumper has been something Matta said he has stressed to the freshman since the day he signed with the Buckeyes. According to the coach, Craft has been making progress in that arena.

"I think Aaron can play point and I think he can play off the ball," the coach said. "We've seen him do both. I don't want to just pigeonhole him into ‘you're going to be the point guard' because I have seen him do both."

On the wing but closer to the post, Thomas presents an interesting profile. The third-most prolific prep scorer in Indiana history, the 6-6, 230-pound freshman has the ability to play both on the perimeter and on the block.

"He's a big wing that can also post," Matta said. "I love the way he passes the ball."

He also likes the way he is apparently filling the bucket. While in Chicago, Matta said Thomas had led the team in scoring in each of the team's scrimmages to that point.

"He's had great humility," the coach said. "He's really buying in. he wants the extra work. He wants to learn. He wants to gain knowledge and that's good."

Said Lighty: "He's fit in real good. He's still learning the system and learning plays and things like that, what he should do and shouldn't do. In high school, he knew what his job was. That's still what his role he; he just has to learn how to do it in the offense."

The fifth-year senior likened him to a cross between former Buckeyes Daequan Cook and Ivan Harris. As a senior, he averaged 31.8 points per contest and led his team to back-to-back state titles as a sophomore and junior.

"He can post up," Lighty said. "He's strong on the blocks and can use his body well and rebound well. That's something I would say makes him a little bit different from Ivan. He can jump out and shoot it. He's real versatile."

Smith continues to recover from offseason wrist surgery and should be in action by the middle of this month. As a senior at Zion (Ill.) Zion-Benton, Smith averaged around 20 points and 8 rebounds while earning first-team all-state honors.

"He's doing a ton of things but he just hasn't done the practice yet," Matta said.

On the wing, Sibert and Weatherspoon possess slightly different builds but have looked somewhat similar to this point, Matta said. Sibert stands 6-4, 180 pounds while Weatherspoon checks in at 6-7, 210.

Sibert returned to action after suffering a broken leg following his junior year to average 18.7 points per game while being named the district player of the year at Cincinnati Princeton. Closer to OSU, Weatherspoon averaged 13.5 points and 6.0 rebounds per contest as a senior at Columbus Northland.

"Jordan is still getting better defensively," the coach said. "His handle of what we're trying to do offensively is getting better. J.D. is kind of in the same boat. He's given us flashes of rebounding and running the floor. The good thing right now is he's really, really shot the ball well. Hopefully that will continue."

Weatherspoon is regarded as being more of a raw prospect than his classmates, but Matta steered talk away from him possibly taking a redshirt this season.

While Smith remains a wild card, Matta was asked if he thinks the other five freshmen including Sullinger can contribute this season.

"I think all five (could)," he said. "Dave and Jon ran into each other the first day of practice and I said, ‘Guys, we need you. We've only got eight players (without you).' They sucked it up and away we went."


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